An Eye for Excellence at the Clark Museum by Lydia Youngman
An exhibit about exhibits. It has the potential to be deathly dull. Instead of telling you why you should care about the objects on display, An Eye For Excellence: Twenty Years of Collecting lets the art speak for itself. It assumes that the viewers can already note excellence for themselves and takes off from there.
In some ways, the idea of an exhibit about exhibits has a lot of potential, as interesting as it is meta, but to some it might also suggest a lack of continuity. What exactly ties these photographs, paintings, sculptures, and ceramics together? Especially since the range in time period from the early 1900s to the present. The answer to this question lies in the objects themselves.
I was drawn to three photographs by Felix Thioller, a French photographer who lived from 1842 to 1914. The photographs are striking because they are highly stylized. They stand out from the rest of the early photography because the go beyond capturing a “slice of life.”
The first photo Cows by a Pond, Plain of Forez shows a pair of cows drinking by the edge of a pond. The animals are perfectly in focus—a difficult feat at the time. The second photo Universal Exhibition, Paris 1900 is of a river lined with fancy buildings on either side of it while the third photo Flooding of the River Rhone at Gisors shows a landscape where stubby, twisted trees sink half-submerged in water.
The photographs are linked both by their emphasis on water but also by the way they use light. Each photograph is lit by a softening halo of light. It reminded me that photography is about capturing time. These photographs are more than old buildings or cows drinking; they immortalize what the world looked like back then.
It’s something that unites all of the pieces in the exhibit. An Eye for Excellence reminds its patrons that museums showcase time. Theodore Rueusseu’s Farm in the Landes, for example, illustrates the way a particular house in the country looked. The painting is an attempt to capture a moment in time.
Other objects in the collection have a different relationship to time. One room houses a model D pianoforte decorated with hand-painted Grecian imagery. While clearly a showpiece, the piano actually features small scuffs on the wood as well as faint cracks and chips in the ivory keys. These bruises are signs of time, that this was once an instrument and not just a piece of art.
Every piece of art in An Eye for Excellence relates to time in a unique and strange way, and because the exhibit is focused on how all these pieces came together, it leaves the why up to the viewer.
An Eye for Excellence runs at the Clark in Williamstown until April 10. Students with ID get in free.
Lydia Youngman is a writer from Albany, New York. The facts: Irish dancer. Loves working with little kids. Terrible with directions. Fears spiders like Ron Weasley, unless someone else in the room is fears spiders more, then yes, fine she will kill the spider.